When Hurricane Katrina's winds and rain began battering her New Orleans neighborhood a week ago Sunday, Diamond Williams, 12, and her family hurried to a nearby hotel.

She didn't know that flooding caused by the storm would become a nightmare that would force her family to live in a shelter and turn her world upside down.

Around midnight that Sunday, the family -- Diamond; her mom, Angela Henry Nelson; stepfather Vernell Nelson; brother Desmond, 10; and sister Vernisha, 2 -- was told to go into the hotel's hallway because of the high winds. "I felt the hotel shaking," Diamond remembers. "The window glass was knocked out by the wind and beds were flying out the window."

She is sitting in a shelter about 80 miles from her home, telling the story of the storm that changed her life. Her hair is pulled back and she's wearing a T-shirt. She talks quickly but is calmer than many of the adults around her.

Monday morning, after the hurricane had passed, family members hopped into their car and headed back home. They thought the worst of the storm was over. But as they drove, "I saw that trees were down and cars were smashed in half," Diamond says. She also noticed the rising floodwaters in the streets. "The water got deeper. It was seeping into the car."

They parked the car and began walking. "I waded through water up to my waist," she says. She thought the water's power might knock her down. They sloshed and slogged their way to her grandmother's third-floor apartment.

While the kids stayed at the apartment, Diamond's mother found her way back to their house. Diamond's stepfather went to check on his nephew and then tried to meet up with Diamond's mom, but got swept up in the floodwaters."My stepdad held onto a tree," Diamond says. "He about drowned. The water was over his head."

Diamond's mother, meanwhile, swam from street to street, pushing an old wooden gate that held an ice chest filled with necessities for her family.

Eventually the family was reunited. Since they couldn't drive through the floodwaters, they sought shelter.

Lots of frantic people were in the streets, trying to save themselves, Diamond recalls. The family wound up walking to the city's Convention Center, where they were told that buses would take them to Houston, Texas, some 300 miles away. The convention center was so crowded that Diamond and her family slept on the sidewalk instead.

The next morning, five buses -- with "Houston" painted on the side -- pulled up. Diamond and everyone else got excited about being rescued. But the buses drove right past them.

Diamond's stepfather took matters into his own hands. He borrowed a bicycle and rode back to the family's car. He drove it through water and picked up his family and brought them to a Red Cross shelter at Istrouma Baptist Church here in Baton Rouge.

All in all, most of the 480,000 people who used to live in New Orleans are scattered throughout the United States. Thousands of them, like Diamond, are in shelters.

The people who run the Istrouma shelter are nice, Diamond says, but she is looking forward to getting back home when the floodwaters recede and the mess is cleaned up. That may take months, however.

She wants to get back to a normal life: to return to her school, where she is a seventh-grader; to watch her favorite TV show, "That's So Raven"; to eat gumbo; and to work on her plans to become a hairdresser and an artist when she grows up.

She might also be a writer; she's got a wild story to tell.

-- Linton Weeks

Diamond Williams, 12, far right, and her family fled New Orleans and are staying at a shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. With Diamond are her mom, Angela Henry Nelson; stepdad, Vernell Nelson; sister Vernisha, 2; and brother Desmond, 10.After the hurricane damaged and flooded much of New Orleans, the city's Convention Center became so overcrowded that many people, including Diamond Williams and her family, slept outside while waiting for help.